American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Frostbite—Dehyrated, Failure to Pay Attention to Warning Signs, Alaska Mount McKinley West Buttress

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2009

FROSTBITE–DEHYDRATED, FAILURE TO PAY ATTENTION TO WARNING SIGNS

Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

Hervé Laurence (40) was a member of a party of eight French climbers who were planning to ascend via the West Buttress. This group departed on May 6 and purportedly arrived at the 14,200-foot camp on May 12. Following a brief stay for acclimatization the expedition, attempted to climb to the summit in one push. The expedition departed at 0400 on May 16. Laurence reported that his feet were very cold and never warmed up. At 0900, the expedition arrived at Denali Pass. Laurence determined that his hands were now frostbitten and so elected to turn around with one climber. Upon reaching the 17,200-foot camp, the two sought assistance from fellow climbers, who in turn contacted the NPS patrol at 14,200 feet via FRS radio for advice. When questioned, Laurence and his partner stated that they could climb down so they were instructed to continue their descent to 14,200 feet and seek out the rangers upon arrival. The two arrived in camp atl800. A physical exam was performed. Although Laurence was only complaining of frostbite to his hands, a fall exam was accomplished and it revealed that Laurence had deep frostbite on the toes of both feet and superficial frostbite on the fingers of both hands. When Laurence was asked why he didn’t turn around when his feet began to freeze, he replied that he had suffered frostbite to his feet two times previously and they had always healed without any complications. Further history revealed he had only consumed 1.5 to two liters of water in the previous 48 hours. Following treatment, the patient was evacuated to Talkeetna and then to Anchorage.

Analysis

This case of frostbite was caused by the climber not hydrating properly and ignoring warning signs. During the climbing briefings conducted by the National Park Service, adequate hydration and the warning signs associated with frostbite are stressed. The climber also stated that he had been wearing mittens when his hands froze. His boots were La Sportiva Olympus Mons, a very popular boot on Denali. At the very least this illustrates that even the best of gear will not necessarily prevent cold injuries and that prevention requires a holistic approach. (Source: John A. Loomis, Ranger, Denali National Park)

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